Category Archives: endurance

Master the freestyle

For anyone who has spent any time leaning and perfecting freestyle, you realize that the more you practice it, the more your understand it is a technique sport. There are so many movements that have to be executed correctly for it to work well, that it can overwhelm you. So pick one or two drills or areas of focus per training session and just focus on that. It WILL pay off for you in the long run!

Here’s an excerpt from Swimming Anatomy with permission of the publisher, Human Kinetics.

“As the hand enters into the water, the wrist and elbow follow and the arm is extended to the starting position of the propulsive phase. Upward rotation of the shoulder blade allows the swimmer to reach an elongated position in the water. From this elongated position, the first part of the propulsive phase begins with the catch. The initial movements are first generated by the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major. The latissimus dorsi quickly joins in to assist the pectoralis major. These two muscles generate a majority of the force during the underwater pull, mostly during the second half of the pull. The wrist flexors act to hold the wrist in a position of slight flexion for the entire duration of the propulsive phase. At the elbow, the elbow flexors (biceps brachii and brachialis) begin to contract at the start of the catch phase, gradually taking the elbow from full extension into approximately 30 degrees of flexion. During the final portion of the propulsive phase the triceps brachii acts to extend the elbow, which brings the hand backward and upward toward the surface of the water, thus ending the propulsive phase. The total amount of extension taking place depends on your specific stroke mechanics and the point at which you initiate your recovery. The deltoid and rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) are the primary muscles active during the recovery phase, functioning to bring the arm and hand out of the water near the hips and return them to an overhead position for reentry into the water. The arm movements during freestyle are reciprocal in nature, meaning that while one arm is engaged in propulsion, the other is in the recovery process.

Several muscle groups function as stabilizers during both the propulsive phase and the recovery phase. One of the key groups is the shoulder blade stabilizers (pectoralis minor, rhomboid, levator scapula, middle and lower trapezius, and the serratus anterior), which as the name implies serve to anchor or stabilize the shoulder blade. Proper functioning of this muscle group is important because all the propulsive forces generated by the arm and hand rely on the scapula’s having a firm base of support. Additionally, the shoulder blade stabilizers work with the deltoid and rotator cuff to reposition the arm during the recovery phase. The core stabilizers (transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, and erector spinae) are also integral to efficient stroke mechanics because they serve as a link between the movements of the upper and lower extremities. This link is central to coordination of the body roll that takes place during freestyle swimming.

Like the arm movements, the kicking movements can be categorized as a propulsive phase and a recovery phase; these are also referred to as the downbeat and the upbeat. The propulsive phase (downbeat) begins at the hips by activation of the iliopsoas and rectus femoris muscles. The rectus femoris also initiates extension of the knee, which follows shortly after hip flexion begins. The quadriceps (vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis) join the rectus femoris to help generate more forceful extension of the knee. Like the propulsive phase, the recovery phase starts at the hips with contraction of the gluteal muscles (primarily gluteus maximus and medius) and is quickly followed by contraction of the hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus). Both muscle groups function as hip extensors. Throughout the entire kicking motion the foot is maintained in a plantarflexed position secondary to activation of the gastrocnemius and soleus and pressure exerted by the water during the downbeat portion of the kick.”

The Swim: Technique and Training for Triathletes

It feels like I am starting over, having been out of the water so long due to injuries.  I used to swim with the local US Masters group for a while and improved quite a bit during that time – thanks Coach Dan&Coach Dave.  Our total yardage varied depending on the season and in which lane you swam.  Mine varied from 2700 to 4200 yards each practice, three times per week.  I thought I was really churning up the water until I talked with a friend whose 12 year old daughter on a rec. league swim team was averaging 3500 yards three to four time per week.  I had also heard D1 collegiate swimmers swam between 8000 and 12000 yards a day.  But for me, it was enough because I had just started swimming a year before that.

Now that I am just coming back to the water after a long absence, it’s almost like starting over.  I remember the mechanics and drills but I am nowhere near where I left off because I have not used those muscles in that way in a long time.  Because of this, I thought it would be a great time to focus on technique.

There are some good books on swimming and drills.  I came across a seven-DVD set triathlon training series that included one for swimming.  It contains two DVDs.

The first disc is geared toward beginner/novice swimmers and was created by Trip Hedrick, former Iowa State University Head Men’s Swimming Coach.  He starts with the premise of you knowing little or nothing about swimming.  He thoroughly explains each drill, it’s purpose, and place moving you toward the full freestyle swim.  He explains what the extremities, arms and legs, should be doing while swimming and drills for that.  Remember, swimming is a technique sport so drilling is important to implant the technique into your muscle memory.

Clark Campbell, former Professional Triathlete and University of Kansas Head Women’s Swimming Coach, takes over and discusses the more detailed points.  These include body position and alignment, the function of the core in swimming, swimming musculature, and much more.

On the second disc, Coach Campbell “takes you through a classroom segment discussing training methods for swimming.”  He discusses what a training plan looks like and how to get to your goal – training periodization.

I popped disc one in and started watching.  Oh, how my Masters practices would have been easier if I’d watched this while learning swimming.  I really like that Trip was in the water, the way he explained the drills, had two triathletes demonstrate them and tell you what part they play in the overall freestyle stroke plan.

Since I am rehabbing from shoulder and elbow issues, I thought I would work on the recovery drill.  My next practice was transformative.  The recovery drills and subsequent swimming with my new recovery felt completely natural.  I was elated.  My wife’s eyes glazed over with excitement when I was telling her all about it, as they often do wen I “talk triathlon”.  The physical therapist liked the new recovery movement compared to the old way.  I told every swimmer I knew the effect of just this one change had made.  Every subsequent swim will have to build on it and imprint it in my muscle memory but, wow, what a difference.

The next goal is to tackle breathing technique.  When swimming a year ago, I could go fast enough where breathing technique was not an issue.  You know your breathing technique is good when you can do catch-up drills slowly while breathing in air instead of water.  That’s what I am working on.  Racing is out for me this year so I have plenty of time to work on technique and base training.

Here’s the DVD I’ve been discussing:
The Swim: Technique and Training for Triathletes – An “Outside-In” Approach to Freestyle

If you enjoy that one, you’ll probably enjoy the whole triathlon training series Champion Productions offer as well.

“H2O:  two parts Heart and one part Obsession.  ~Author Unknown”

Upcoming book of interest – Swimming Anatomy

I don’t usually do this but I saw a book that should be published this fall you all should know about.  I have yet to see it but if it’s like any of their other *.Anatomy  series, it will be terrific.  It’s called “Swimming Anatomy” published by Human Kinetics.  Here’s the description published with permission of Human Kinetics.

“See how to achieve stronger starts, more explosive turns, and faster times! Swimming Anatomy will show you how to improve your performance by increasing muscle strength and optimizing the efficiency of every stroke.

Swimming Anatomy includes 74 of the most effective swimming exercises, each with step-by-step descriptions and full-color anatomical illustrations highlighting the primary muscles in action.

Swimming Anatomy goes beyond exercises by placing you on the starting block, in the water, and into the throes of competition. Illustrations of the active muscles for starts, turns, and the four competitive strokes (freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly, and backstroke) show you how each exercise is fundamentally linked to swimming performance.

You’ll also learn how exercises can be modified to target specific areas, improve your form in the water, and minimize common swimming injuries. Best of all, you’ll learn how to put it all together to develop a training program based on your individual needs and goals.

Whether you are training for a 50-meter freestyle race or the open-water stage of a triathlon, Swimming Anatomy will ensure you enter the water prepared to achieve every performance goal.”

Developing the catch and power phase in swimming freestyle

Anyone who has spent any time developing their freestyle knows that technique is everything.  Yes, eventually you will have endurance but technique, reducing drag, and drills make for an excellent swim.  One popular swim author claims to teach effortless swimming.  Although it is a good book, I have yet to find that effortless swim.  But with proper technique and its practice, you can have a faster time and expend less energy.

The following except comes from Mastering Swimming, reprinted here by permission of Human Kenetics.

Developing the catch and power phase

The power in swimming comes from the core group of muscles, which this book defines as the area from the neck to the knees, including all of the upper-back and shoulder muscles, the abdominal muscles, and the trunk and upper-leg muscles. The best way to access this power is with a great setup at the beginning of the freestyle underwater pull, or what is commonly called the catch. This term, which first became popular with the development of the crawl or freestyle stroke in the 19th century, refers to the point in the stroke when a swimmer’s hand connects with the water and starts to pull.

The catch itself is not the main propulsive part of the stroke, but when properly executed, it sets your stroke up to be more effective through the propulsive power phase that follows. The freestyle catch occurs in the first 9 to 12 inches (23-30 cm) of the stroke, where you begin your pull by pressing the fingertips down while keeping your elbow up. Imagine yourself reaching over a waterfall and anchoring your palm and forearm on the rocks so that you can pull your body over. The late Doc Counsilman, former head coach of Indiana University and coach to 48 Olympians, including Jim Montgomery, was well known for his analogy of pulling over a barrel. Great freestyle swimmers anchor their hands in the water and use their core muscles to rotate their bodies past their hands. To properly achieve this catch position, internally, or medially, rotate your shoulder and open your armpit. Imagine driving your elbow toward the pool wall in front of you.

Consider the effect of body rotation on the depth of your hand catch. The forward reach and downward press of your arm at the entry and catch causes your body to rotate to the side. Keep your hand planed directly back (toward the wall behind you), with your fingertips toward the bottom of the pool, until your arm has reached midstroke. This is a key point for maintaining a powerful application of propulsive force. Finding the right amount of body rotation will automatically help you find the ideal depth in the pull. Once you set the high-elbow position in the underwater pull, maintain it throughout the stroke cycle. By keeping your hand and elbow anchored in the water at the catch spot, you will be able to recruit core muscles to rotate your body past that spot on the longitudinal axis. At midstroke, the bend of the elbow is approximately 90 degrees and then opens up again as your hand finishes the stroke. Your hand moves slowest at the catch phase of the stroke, but gradually picks up momentum until it is moving fast under your hips at the end of the stroke. Keep your wrist flexed to hold your hand perpendicular to the water’s surface at the finish of the pull. The acceleration of the hand through the underwater pull synchronized with the rotation of the body’s core creates the power phase of the freestyle stroke.

With a well-executed hand entry and extension followed by an effective catch and follow-through, your hand will actually come out of the water in front of the point where it entered! The hands of world-class swimmers exit the water several feet (about 1 m) in front of their entry points. These swimmers have an incredible amount of shoulder and back flexibility, allowing them to position their hands, forearms, and elbows in the catch position much earlier in the stroke. This creates a longer and more propulsive power phase. The following series of photos depicts the freestyle stroke from catch to power phase (figure 4.3, a-d).

Many adult novice and intermediate swimmers lack the body rotation, strength, and flexibility to hold their shoulders and elbows above their pulling hands throughout the freestyle pull. A well-designed dry-land program that includes stretching and strengthening helps swimmers learn and perfect the underwater stroke. Use the following teaching progression of both on-deck and in-water skills to learn the mechanics of the catch position and the correct muscle recruitment for transitioning into an efficient underwater pull.

  1. Begin by standing on the pool deck in a streamlined position. Have a partner hold a hand against yours, applying slight pressure against your palm as you proceed to simulate the freestyle pull pattern. Start by pressing your fingers and elevating your elbow. Feel the different use of muscles during a high-elbow, a straight-arm, and a dropped-elbow pull. When you do a high-elbow pull, you should feel your core muscles come into play, including the upper-back, chest, and shoulder muscles.
  2. Use stretch cords to manipulate your hand and forearm into the desired movement of the stroke cycle. Start with your arms fully extended at shoulder-width and your wrists slightly flexed. Pop up your elbows and move your arms back in a curved path, first diagonally outward and then inward. Once your hands have moved across and under your body, extend your elbows and straighten your arms. Notice that your hands travel farther than the elbow.
  3.  Another great teaching tool is the in-water press-up. Position yourself at the deep end of the pool, facing the wall. Place your palms flat on the deck or gutter of the pool. Start with your head and body submerged, and then press up, using the buoyancy of the water to lift your body out. Maintain a high-elbow position and lift your body as high as you can.
  4. Sensitizing your hands and forearms can dramatically enhance your feel for the water. This allows you to make subtle adjustments in the pitch of your hand so you can hold the water more effectively, whether anchoring in the catch position or finishing the propulsive power phase. You will learn to recognize water pressure against your hand and forearm during every phase of the stroke. Here are three simple ways to sensitize your hands: press the fingertips of one hand hard against the fingertips of the other, press your fingertips against the pool deck while resting, or rub your hands together or on the pool deck.
  5. Swimming with hand paddles generates more water pressure against the palms of your hands, which activates the muscle groups that propel your elbows up. Novice masters swimmers should use smaller paddles, preferably with holes in them. Try eliminating the wrist strap of the paddle and use a single strap or tubing around your middle finger. Focus on keeping water pressure on the paddle. If you drop your elbow, the paddle tends to slide off your hand.
  6. Whether you are from the American South or not, the A-OK and the Hook ’em Horns drills can effectively teach you to recognize flow and to angle your hands efficiently for good stroke patterns. To begin, swim freestyle with your fingers in the A-OK position, pressing together the tips of your thumb and forefinger to form a tunnel to channel the water flow as your hand changes direction in the stroke. If you drop your elbow during the pull, the water will not flow through the tunnel. To form the Hook ’em Horns hand position, hold your middle and ring fingers against your palm at the base of your thumb and point your forefinger and pinky finger up to signify horns. Begin the freestyle with this hand position, pointing the horn fingers toward the bottom of the pool during the pull.”

Triathlon basic swim technique

Three years ago I started swimming after back surgery for a low impact aerobic activity. When I was young, I swam around lakes and pools but never on a swim team and was never coached.

After several months of swimming on my own, I joined a US Masters swim team. The US Masters Swimming is a terrific way to learn swimming or get back into it. It is a coached practice for all levels of ability. They divide you into lanes based on your ability. As you progress, you move “up a lane.” I started in lane one and watched in amazement at some of the swimmers in the “fast lane.” They were former college swimmers, a former professional triathlete, and people who had worked their way up and were just plain fast.

Swimming is probably the most technique-oriented sport in triathlon. Thus, it is one where coaching can help you the most. A friend of mine, a former Auburn swimmer, advised me to take private lessons for a month then go on my own. I should have followed his advice – I would have saved myself many months of learning the hard way. US Masters is a coached practice but there are 20+ other swimmers they have to pay attention to so be patient and learn proper technique before putting in a lot of yardage. Trust me, you will be SO much better off in the long run.

Swimming well means two things to me. First, having good technique and balance – this is absolutely a technique sport. Second, reducing the drag of the water on your body. We’ll get into technique in a minute but let me address drag.

Drag
Water is about 1000 times more dense than air. Imagine you are pushing your hand through the water. Is it harder to push your hand parallel to the water line or perpendicular? Perpendicular. The basic lesson of this is to reduce your resistance signature in the water. This will come with practicing good technique but it is worth mentioning on it’s own because it is so important. The more drag you carry and push through the water, the harder you have to work to maintain a certain speed. Thus, the less drag, the faster you will go at any given level of energy.

The image my terrific Masters coach gave me was to imagine your are trying to swim through a long tube. The smaller your make that imaginary tube, the less drag you have.

There are entire books written on technique so I will briefly outline it here and have some terrific resource recommendations at the end of this post.

Balance
Before getting into technique specifics, you must learn to balance yourself in the water. By this I mean, be able to kick almost effortlessly on your side where your hips and shoulders are at about the same level. Your hips and legs are not lower making you plow through the water creating drag – remember the tube imagery. The next time you are swimming, take a moment to watch some of the other swimmers, from underwater if you can do so safely. You will know who has balance right away because they appear relatively level compared to the water line. Others will appear to swimming uphill the entire time, and I can tell you from my earlier days that it feels like it also. Balance is imperative and should be drilled until it is second nature.

Technique
I’m not a coach but I offer what I have learned – take it for what its worth. The freestyle stroke can be broken into several phases:

  • Entry
  • Catch
  • Pull
  • Push
  • Recovery

The entry is how your hand comes in front of and enters the water. It should be at a 45 degree angle when entering the water and go through the water like your putting your hand through a mail slot. As you move your hand forward, your body should roll partially to it’s side.

The catch is how your hand and forearm “catch” or grab the water ready to pull and push the water back, and you forward.

The pull is where, with a high elbow, your hand and forearm start to pull the water back. I went to a swim clinic taught by Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines. He used the imagery of putting your hand over a barrel and pulling – that’s the curved type of shape it should be. But make sure you have a high elbow. It will likely feel awkward at first.

The push is taking all the water mass you have gathered in the pull and pushing it back propelling you forward. There is some debate about whether you push all the way back and flip your hand out at the end of the pull OR pull out earlier since the last few inches don’t add that much propulsion.

The recovery is how your arm gets from the end of the pull back to entry. Some teach it to be almost a huge circle while most still teach a high elbow and relaxed forearm back to entry. I’ll leave this to your research and trail and error. This is typically when your shoulders are rotated almost perpendicular to the water line. This rotation is generated through your core and hips.

Please take my advice – get some help with your technique in the beginning. It’s worth it. With proper technique you are more likely to avoid injury and progress faster.

One last thing to remember about triathlon swims is that you don’t want to spend all of your energy kicking in the swim portion leaving nothing for the remaining one to fourteen hours of your event that require much from your legs. Some advise to use them as a stabilizer instead of a propellant, thus saving energy. Experiment with it and see what works for you. Whether you use your legs much in your triathlon swim or not, having a good swim means having a proficient kick and that takes time to acquire but is worth the effort.

Summary

  • Get a coach in the beginning if you can
  • If you can’t, get some videos or books to learn technique (see below)
  • Have someone video tape you swimming so you can see and correct yourself
  • Technique drills should incorporated through all phases of your swim development
  • Learn drills and practice them regularly no matter how fast you progress
  • Balance is the key to less drag and less effort

Resources
Swim technique videos
Total Immersion Swimming DVD
Total Immersion (book)
The Swimming Drill Book

The importance of technique in triathlon

My training has been interrupted with several injuries, perhaps brought on by not knowing how to train properly or improper technique. One thing I have learned for certain is that technique is involved in all the sports in triathlon.

There are lots of people, including me, who started out saying, “you swim a little then bike a few miles then run. Who can’t do that?”

Recognizing that I am not a great athlete, I tried to get better which, to me, meant adding more yardage in the pool and more mileage on the road. After I had been training for a while, with all the reading and talking to other triathletes I did, I heard several common themes. One of which referenced swimming, “don’t do trash yardage.” In other words, don’t add lots of yardage until you are swimming with good technique. If you do, you will only enforce improper technique that will come back to bite you. This is equally meaningful to running and biking, though most agree swimming is the most technique-intensive sport involved.

One source I found helpful in all sports was the Science of Triathlon DVD. There are over 9 hours of video covering most aspects of the triathlon including nutrition, swimming technique, run technique, mental imaging, transitioning.

You can find it here: